Frederick Wiseman on Tackling the Tolstoys, Finishing ‘The Wire’ and Never Ever Retiring

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Frederick Wiseman, a voracious reader, doesn’t watch television. In fact, he’d never really gotten through a whole series until recently, when he watched HBO’s “The Wire.”

“I don’t know why, but it was interesting,” he tells Variety drily.

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Every couple of years, the 92-year-old master documentarian behind such seminal films as “Titicut Follies” and “Juvenile Court” has churned out a sprawling documentary fixated on a microcosm of society or some sort of social issue, but when the pandemic paused those efforts for two and a half years, it’s Wiseman’s literary proclivities that drew him to Sofia Tolstoy’s writing for his new fiction film “Un Couple,” which premiered Friday in Venice’s Competition section.

Wiseman and sometimes collaborator, the French actor and writer Nathalie Boutefeu, were brainstorming small-scale projects that could be made in pandemic-proof conditions, when they landed on the diaries of Leo Tolstoy’s long-suffering wife and writer, which Boutefeu had been reading. The diaries lent themselves to a monologue-focused project, much like Wiseman’s “The Last Letter” (2002) and “Seraphita’s Diary” (1982).

“We’re both very interested in Tolstoy, and the issues that affected their marriage, because despite the fact that Tolstoy was one of the richest men in Russia, their marriage had a lot of the problems that one sees in contemporary couples, both of whom are talented, both of whom are working — issues around the care and education of the children, and who gets up at night,” says Wiseman.

The framework of a monologue allows Wiseman to do “the opposite of what I do on a documentary,” he says.

“In my documentaries, in a movie like ‘Welfare’ or ‘City Hall,’ there are a couple of hundred people, though not all of them have speaking parts,” says Wiseman. “I also like the idea of creating a world with just one person.”

“Un Couple,” which is 63 minutes long, sees Boutefeu playing Sofia and reciting anguished passages of Sofia’s diary, in French, to camera. The setting is resplendent: Wiseman shot in a friend’s sprawling garden in Bailleul, northern France, in the spring of 2021, and often cuts away to images of the estate’s flora and fauna.

Why did they shoot in French as opposed to Sofia’s native Russian? “Well, Nathalie and I were working together and Nathalie doesn’t speak Russian, and nor do I. That was easy,” says Wiseman, who is now based in Paris.

As for his focus on a Russian subject when much of the industry has claimed to have enacted a cultural boycott of the country in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, Wiseman scoffs at the prospect. Though the film was shot before the war, which broke out in late February, he insists that “Tolstoy is universal.”

“An economic boycott — that has an effect,” he says. “To not read Russian writers from the 19th century? First of all, it’s depriving oneself from great pleasure. And second of all, it has no effect on contemporary Russian life.”

The one impact, he allows, is that Wiseman declined to send the film to a festival in St. Petersburg, Russia. He feels some guilt about doing as much but says, “Everybody has to take a stand against what the Russians are doing in Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, Wiseman is quietly plotting his next documentary, which will shoot later this year, though he won’t be drawn on what exactly it is. With no plans to retire — “I’m no spring chicken but I like to work,” he says — the filmmaker wants to do more drama in the future.

“I don’t see any reason why I should have to be categorized as either a documentary filmmaker or a fiction filmmaker,” he declares. “I think, in many ways, my documentaries are fiction. Because despite the fact that nothing is staged, the editing is completely fictional.”

French actor and writer Nathalie Boutefeu in “Un Couple”
French actor and writer Nathalie Boutefeu in “Un Couple”

As it happens, the element of fiction and staging in documentary is currently a hot-button issue within the world of non-fiction, particularly after “Roadrunner” director Morgan Neville admitted to using artificial intelligence to simulate a portion of dialogue in the voice of the late Anthony Bourdain — words that had been written by the chef and TV personality, but never uttered. The admission sparked a debate about the ethics of using AI, and the extent of transparency with the audience that’s now required in doc making.

“I don’t pay any attention to it,” says Wiseman. “I never prompt people to say certain things. I never— I try not to distort what they say. And I also don’t have any idea how to think about the audience. I don’t mean this to sound presumptuous or arrogant, but I don’t know how to think about the audience.

“How do I know what their education is, their interest, or what their life experience may be? I have a hard-enough time figuring out what I think about the material, rather than create some fantasy about an audience,” says Wiseman.

Mainstream audiences, however, don’t exactly have easy access to the director’s movies. They are all available on U.S. public library and university-focused streamer Kanopy, says Wiseman, but aren’t to his knowledge on global SVODs like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video.

“I mean, not that I wouldn’t be interested in having them on there, but they’ve never shown any interest in showing them,” he shrugs.

“Un Couple” will begin its U.S. release at New York’s Film Forum on Nov. 11.

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